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The 11 Most Surprising Players of the NBA Season (So Far)

DeMar DeRozan is uprooting our understanding of efficiency, and Evan Turner is uprooting the Blazers’ playoff hopes. Who else makes our list?

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

For the most part, the more things change in the NBA, the more they stay the same. By the time a player has played in the league for a few seasons, he has usually established an identity for himself. His coaches and his teammates know his strengths and weaknesses, and there’s a scouting report about him around the league. Even when a player opts for a new team, it’s with the understanding that he will have a similar role to the one he had before. It’s difficult for a player to break out of his mold, but there have been more than a handful who have done it so far through the first month of the season. Some have become better versions of themselves; others have added new elements to their skill sets; and a few have seen previously reliable parts of their games fall off. There’s still plenty of time for the numbers to stabilize, but for now, here are the 10 (actually, 11) players who have been the biggest surprises.

DeMar DeRozan

DeRozan is forcing us to rethink everything we know about scoring the basketball efficiently. That, or maybe he’s just obscenely hot on shots that no one has any business consistently taking (much less making). DeRozan has long been a polarizing player, and even the credit he received for the Raptors’ run to the Eastern Conference finals last season came with an asterisk regarding his shooting 39.4 percent from the field in the playoffs while taking 19.9 shots a game. No one can complain about his efficiency now. He is averaging 33 points on 50.3 percent shooting this season, shattering his career averages of 18.4 points on 44.5 percent shooting, while still refusing to shoot 3s. DeRozan has become the most perfect version of the player he’s always been. He has turned the midrange into his private office, and he’s making a living at the free throw line, averaging more than 10 attempts a game. There’s no way to guard a guy who spends the game draining 20-foot jumpers over double-teams without fouling him.

Brook Lopez and Marc Gasol

The Nets’ Lopez and the Grizzlies’ Gasol are two of the biggest human beings in a league full of some of the biggest human beings in the world. Logic would suggest that the best use of their skills would be planting them as close to the basket as possible, but modern basketball has its own brand of logic, where it makes just as much sense for two players listed at a minimum of 7 feet tall and 255 pounds to shoot 25-plus-foot jumpers as it does for them to shoot layups. Lopez and Gasol have shot more 3s this season (98) than they have in the first eight seasons of their careers combined (97). Gasol is shooting 40.5 percent from 3, and Lopez is shooting 35.7 percent, so their green lights aren’t going away anytime soon. If the league’s last remaining mastodons are shooting 3s, no one else has much of an excuse. There has never been a better time to be a professional shooting coach.

Bismack Biyombo

There was always going to be an adjustment period for Biyombo, but you would think a guy who received a four-year, $72 million contract would see more than 23 minutes a night from his new team. You would think that the team would do a little more to feature him offensively, or at least get the most out of his skill set. Biyombo is backing up Nikola Vucevic in Orlando, and he’s struggling to find a rhythm on a disjointed Magic second unit that doesn’t have the playmaking or the shooting that Biyombo fed off of during his time in Toronto. It’s not necessarily a huge surprise that he’s playing more in line with his career averages than he is his breakout performance in last season’s playoffs when Jonas Valanciunas was injured, but it is surprising the Magic aren’t doing more to make him feel comfortable. His role isn’t all that different from what Dewayne Dedmon had last year in Orlando, and Dedmon was doing it for a lot less than $17 million a season.

Vince Carter

After two underwhelming seasons with the Grizzlies, the three-year contract Carter signed in 2014 was starting to look like his golden parachute out of the NBA. That has changed under new coach David Fizdale, who has the oldest man in the league playing like a guy soaking in a hot tub time machine before every game. Vince has nearly doubled his per-game averages from the season before, and his advanced statistics are even more impressive, as the Grizzlies outscore their opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions when Vince is on the floor and are outscored by 9.8 points per 100 when he’s off. It doesn’t seem possible that Vince could have a net rating almost identical to Marc Gasol and Mike Conley all season, but it also doesn’t seem possible that a 39-year-old man could pull off a 360 dunk in warm-ups, which ESPN broadcaster Mark Jackson said happened before the Grizzlies’ victory over the Clippers on Wednesday.

Harrison Barnes

It’s hard to imagine how bad the Mavs would be if Barnes hadn’t suddenly decided to channel Dirk Nowitzki after Dirk was sidelined with a lingering Achilles injury. Barnes is averaging 21.3 points on 46 percent shooting with the Mavs, doubling his career scoring average while maintaining his efficiency, a combination that almost never happens. He’s also doing it as an isolation scorer, trailing only Russell Westbrook in terms of the number of one-on-one shots taken this season, despite rarely creating his own offense with the Warriors. He’s not going to continue shooting 47.1 percent from 15–19 feet, but his shot-creating ability is a ray of hope for Mavs fans to hold onto in what is starting to look like a lost season. Fizdale called Barnes a franchise player after Memphis’s game against Dallas on Friday, and he didn’t appear to be joking.

Brandon Knight

The Suns have been one of the most miserable teams in the NBA to watch over the first month of the season, as they have a weird mix of past-their-prime veterans, guys wandering through midcareer morasses, and raw young players that hasn’t blended together at all. Maybe the weirdest part of their start, though, is the poor play of Brandon Knight, who is averaging 13.1 points a game on career-worst 37.9 percent shooting, with the worst assist-to-turnover ratio he’s had since his rookie season. He is clearly not adjusting well to coming off the bench for the first time in his NBA career, but he’s such a good one-on-one scorer that he should be able to get his numbers regardless of the role he has on his team. The Suns gave Knight close to a max contract in 2015 because of his offense; his complete lack of rhythm so far this season has been legitimately shocking.

Nick Young

Luke Walton got a few votes for Coach of the Year in his time running the Warriors in Steve Kerr’s absence last season, and nothing he did in Golden State is any more impressive than the way his free-flowing offensive system in Los Angeles has saved Young’s career. Young looked more than halfway out of the NBA when the bizarre soap opera between him, D’Angelo Russell, and a smartphone played out over the internet last season, but the two have been connected at the hip as the Lakers’ new starting backcourt, fueling a 7–6 start with a barrage of 3s on a nightly basis. Young still isn’t passing the ball or rebounding very much, but it doesn’t matter when you are shooting with his combination of volume and efficiency (37.9 percent from 3 on 6.7 attempts a game).

Andre Iguodala

The addition of Kevin Durant changed everyone’s roles in Golden State, and Iguodala has never been much of a scorer, but the way his offense has cratered this season is an issue. He’s averaging 5.4 points a game on 43.8 percent shooting, and the Warriors’ new Lineup of Death becomes a lot more guardable if no one bothers guarding Iguodala, who is shooting a career-low 26.7 percent from 3. Maybe the bigger concern is on defense. He’s 32, and that’s about the age many defensive stoppers start to slow down. Over the past three seasons, Iguodala served as the glue that held the Warriors together on that side of the ball, but his hold is starting to wear off. If we have seen the last of prime Iguodala, Golden State becomes a lot more vulnerable in a seven-game series down the road.

George Hill

Hill has played in only seven games this season due to a sprained thumb, but he already looks like a player capable of way more than the role he had last season with the Pacers. With Gordon Hayward out in six of those games with a broken finger, Hill’s usage rate has skyrocketed from 15.8 to 23.6, and he is averaging 20.4 points a game on 51.4 percent shooting. He can offer 3-point range and defensive versatility when Hayward and Rodney Hood are on the floor, and can be a primary option on the perimeter when necessary. The Jazz have a bounty of quality big men, but Hill has already proved himself to be the best point guard they’ve had since Deron Williams, and he has reportedly moved ahead of Derrick Favors in terms of becoming Utah’s biggest extension priority.

Evan Turner

Like with Biyombo, Turner’s early struggles with his new team shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise; the benefits of continuity are often overlooked by fans and reporters coming into a season. The surprise is just how bad he’s been. The Blazers have a net rating of minus-16.7 when he is on the floor, and a net rating of plus-9.3 points when he is off. The good news is that he can’t continue to be as harmful as his advanced numbers suggest he has been, because no NBA-caliber player could be over the course of a season. Turner was going to need time to figure out how to play with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but the Blazers couldn’t have expected the acclimation to go this poorly when they signed him to a four-year, $70 million contract. After almost every decision the Blazers’ front office made turned out golden last season, they were due for a miss, but this one could be catastrophic.